History of Heuer III: 1950s

By the start of the 1950s, the post-war boom in sales of chronographs to war veterans was beginning to tail off, leaving Heuer with additional manufacturing capacity. The decision was made to branch out into the sale of non-chronograph watches to make use of this otherwise excess capacity. Since the first wristwatches appeared in the teens, the majority of Heuer’s wristwatch production had been chronographs but with that niche shrinking, management decided to explore straight time-keeping watches. The majority of the business continued nonetheless to be in stopwatches and timers.

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Notable for Heuer was that these time-only watches used an automatic movement, rather than the manual movements of the chronographs. Although automatic wristwatches had been in circulation since John Harwood developed the first in the UK in 1923, Heuer’s focus on chronographs meant their offerings until now had been manually wound. These early automatics used a moving weight to wind the mainspring, with “bumper” springs each side to prevent full rotation and are therefore commonly called bumper movements.

Heuer’s long-time movement supplier Valjoux was also primarily concerned with the manufacture of chronograph movements, so Heuer turned to Adolph Schild SA (commonly A. Schild) instead for these. By modern standards, these watches are rather small, commonly being no more than 30mm wide but were indeed considered men’s watches.

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Meanwhile, over at another movement manufacture, Büren, development was underway on a feature that would have a significant impact on Heuer over a decade later. Their first micro-rotor movement was launched in 1957 and went on to feature in watches from Hamilton, Dugena and Bulova and others. Those three names will crop up again later in the Heuer story and the link through Büren is of note.

1950s Models

Heuer had its 90th anniversary in 1950 and used this occasion to run advertising showing what it calls its “mid-century” models:

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These were triple calendar models without any chronograph function, in steel or 14 or 18 K gold. These models continued throughout most of the decade, with a variety of date hands, sometimes strikingly shaped:

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This demonstrates that Heuer, already familiar with chronographs, was happy to offer watches with various complications rather than just a straightforward line of time-only watches. Another such watch was the Twin-Time of 1955, able to show a second time zone and presaging a similar watch that would form part of the re-issue Carrera range in the 2000s.

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Triple calendars were mentioned earlier as a staple of Heuer production in the 40s and 50s, but they were further complicated in this decade to produce some models with the addition of a moonphase indicator.

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There were also moonphase watches without chronographs in the range.

Heuer in North America

Just as today, one of the major markets for Heuer in the post-war years was the United States. Heuer had sold watches and timers in the US for a number of years, but always through a local partner.

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In 1959 the Heuer family sold the family home “Bel Air” in Bienne and used the funds to start their own North American distribution business. On 16 March 1959 Hubert and his nephew Jack Heuer opened the branch, named Heuer Time Corporation, in New York as shown in these period photographs.

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Jack was selected to run the US branch and used the time well to study marketing in the US as well as just the direct mechanics of distribution.

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In addition to selling watches under the Heuer brand, Heuer also co-branded their watches with established brands, such as Baylor and Abercrombie & Fitch. Baylor was an arm of the US jewellery retailer Zales and many of the automatic Heuers were sold through this channel.

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Abercrombie & Fitch’s relationship with Heuer had continued and grown since the suggestion of the Solunar tide watch and produced some striking watches during the 1950s. One such was a re-branding of Heuer’s 1948 Autograph, with its additional pusher on the left for manually advancing a pointer one minute at a time.

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Some watches carried joint branding, whilst others were marked Abercrombie & Fitch only.

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 The original Solunar was elaborated on to include chronograph functions and this watch was sold as the Seafarer:

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Heuer produced their own-branded version of the watch as the Mareographe:

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Stopwatches and Timers

Stopwatch and timer production continued much as before, and rather than always being involved in the glamour world of motorsports, many were put to much more prosaic use.

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This stopwatch, as evidenced by the caseback, was issued to the UK General Post Office in 1953 and would therefore have been involved in timing postal service operations rather than a race car. Heuer produced stopwatches for industry and laboratory work with the decimal scale, as well as for specific sporting events across an enormous range of timers. Catalogues of the time often feature many more pages covering timers than wristwatches.

The dash timer line continued to progress too, firstly with the launch in the early 50s of the Auto-Rallye.

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No model name features on the dial of the early versions and aesthetically it is a match for the contemporary Autavia and Hervue models. Later models would show the model name and, paralleling the wristwatches somewhat, an A.Schild 1564 movement replaced the Valjoux 62 of the initial model.

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At the same time as this 1958 revision, the Hervue was amended to become the Master Time with aesthetics to match the Auto Rallye.

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The Monte Carlo was introduced to replace the Autavia:

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And these latter two paired together on a backplate make one of the Heuer icons, the Rallye Master.

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The final introduction of 1958 was the Super Autavia, a dashboard chronograph showing both real time as well as elapsed time, just as Heuer’s wrist chronographs would.

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Looking back at the 1950s

So how had Heuer’s experiment with non-chronographs gone? It had certainly used up some excess capacity but it was a market with a lot of competition and Heuer struggled in it. Jack Heuer had finished his studies by 1958 and was invited to join the company, and would later recall that from their comfortable and uncrowded niche of chronographs, they were suddenly in a market with 600 other Swiss watch manufacturers.

After some analysis of strategy and production, Heuer decided to largely withdraw from the time-only market and focus once again on chronographs. Many of the existing watches were remaindered to Baylor and sold relatively cheaply through that channel.

So Heuer would go into its centenary as a maker of stopwatches, timers and chronographs. But that’s a story for next time.

 

 

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References

[1] [3] [6] [8] [9] [10] [15] [16] TAG Heuer Archives

[2] [4] [5] [11] [12] [17] [18] Courtesy of Jarl Rehn-Erichsen and http://www.classicheuers.blogspot.com/

[7] [13] [14] 19] [20] [21] [22] [23] [24] Courtesy Jeff Stein and www.onthedash.com